In the West, the sexual revolution was part of a wider movement of personal liberation and challenges to authority. In China, the post-Mao shift from procreation to recreation was driven not by The Beatles and Lady Chatterley, but by the Chinese Communist Party.
“After the Cultural Revolution, the government’s control [of people’s lives] started loosening, and at the same time the one-child policy meant people could have sex lives that weren’t for the purpose of giving birth. They could have sex for pleasure,” said Pan Suiming (潘綏銘) of Renmin University, one of the country’s leading experts on sex.
Li Yinhe (李銀河), another researcher, said: “In the past, women were not allowed to like sex — sex was only for giving birth to children, or for serving men. Now they can enjoy sex.”
When the magazine Popular Cinema (大眾電影) dared to print a romantic clinch in 1979, it sparked a national controversy. The publication of the kiss — a still from a Cinderella movie starring Richard Chamberlain — was “decadent, capitalist, an act meant to poison our youths,” complained an irate local propaganda official. However, thousands more picked up their pens to support the magazine.
However, puckering up has lost its subversive edge — even if the average age for a first kiss remained at 23 just a few years ago. These days premarital sex is very common and has spread to rural areas too, Pan said.
Even now, most assume that sexual relationships end in marriage. Half of the men he surveyed in 2007 had had only one sexual partner — and even younger and more experienced men have double standards, as a group of female students at the festival testify.
“There’s a long way to go. People do think a woman is a slut [if she has had multiple partners],” Emily Mai said.
“We have a right to choose premarital sex,” her friend Yee Bai added. “It’s freedom. We can’t stand to have only ‘pure, spiritual’ love.”
Sun Zhongxin (孫中欣) of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh says the sexual revolution has benefited different sexes and sexualities to different degrees and that both men and women may face new pressures, feeling inadequate when faced with a single and sometimes more westernized standard of sexiness.
Tens of millions of men will not find wives or long-term partners at all, because of China’s “missing” women: Illegal sex-selective abortions have caused the gender ratio at birth to rise from the natural rate of 106 boys per 100 girls to 118 boys.
Many more men are migrant workers who may see their spouses once a year at best.
“They can use sexual toys to let their desire out. It’s better than going to have sex with prostitutes,” the event’s deputy director Zhu Jianming (朱建明) said.
However, as Sun points out, the sex industry is not just the fruit of changing attitudes; it has been aggressive in pushing “liberalisation.”
The results can be alarming. One stall in Guangzhou is advertising a sex doll designed to look like a very young girl. Zhu dismisses concerns: “It doesn’t encourage people ... You can’t criticize a sexual fantasy.”
He adds that he too worries that some people “have been influenced by western ideas about sex, are out of control and indulge themselves sexually.”
He insists the show is designed to encourage sexual morality and positive relationships, not just sexual knowledge.